Deterrence in the Pacific: The Chinese Nuclear Dimension

By Robbin Laird

In my recent discussion with Dr. Paul Bracken, we focused on what is often the too neglected aspect of the nuclear dimension to Pacific deterrence. How does the nuclear dimension impact on the entire spectrum of crisis management?

With the land wars of the past twenty years, except for the possible and horrifying threat of terrorists acquiring some kind of nuclear capability, conventional operations have been executed and planned without a nuclear planning factor.

Unfortunately, this historical experience is becoming a strategic assumption for some American policy planners and general officers when looking at the Pacific.

The threat of nuclear conflict would only become relevant towards the end game of a conventional conflict is a faulty assumption.

Crisis management involving nuclear powers is about escalation management with the specter of nuclear engagement woven into the process.

Just because you ignore this fact does not mean that it is not true.

Conventional force planning for a major contingency in the Pacific for the United States and its allies, has no less than three nuclear powers to consider with regard to crisis management planning.

And each of these nuclear powers have very different perspectives on how nuclear weapons can come into play.

What certainly cannot be done is to shape a way ahead with regard to high end warfare as if it is primarily or soley a conventional engagement.

Even a conventional engagement has nuclear consequences, notably with regard to embedded C2 systems and networks being relied upon in conflict.

Notably any US Army or USMC thinking about the way ahead in the Pacific needs to return them to their Cold War roots where there was no expectation that one could do land engagements without considerations for the overhang of nuclear operations.

The dovetailing of the current US Navy and USAF efforts to shape a distributed integrated force operating as a kill web is a key element of the way ahead for deterrence in the Pacific. This allows for building a more resilient yet more lethal force able to operate across a kill web to deliver strike at the point of greatest value with diverse networks of sensors is a base line from which to operate.

When considering strike, the question is where and for what purpose, up to and including nuclear weapons, a clear consideration for both US Navy and USAF forces within a Pacific deterrence strategy.

Recently, Bracken wrote an op ed in The Hill which further developed some of the themes we discussed in his interview.

In this op ed he underscored the challenge of understanding, anticipating and preparing for the evolving Chinese approach to nuclear war as part of the broader context how do we shape an effective deterrent strategy.

In his article, he focused on the Chinese nuclear buildup within the context of their overall military modernization efforts.

And he highlighted a key challenge: “The crisis management behavior of this force is likely something the Chinese themselves do not understand.

“Crises are defined more by uncontrollable factors than doctrine.

“The whole point of crisis management is to understand, as best we can, what these behaviors look like.

“For example, nuclear alerts now mean moving live weapons around at sea, on the ground and in the air — a juggling act that can lead to many surprises for which there is no doctrine.”

He highlighted as well the significance of nuclear weapons even if they are NOT used in shaping how the United States and its allies will need to act with a much more robust Chinese nuclear force in play.

“China’s nuclear buildup will shape the postures of the United States, Japan, India, Russia and others.

“Rocking the boat” in Asia will look much different in a “heavy” nuclear world than it did when China was barely a nuclear weapon state.”

Bracken then highlighted a key intersection between conventional and nuclear systems driven by technology in the reconnaissance-strike enterprise.

“Advanced technology is spilling over into the nuclear arena. The most systemically important targets for China are other people’s nuclear weapons — the United States, obviously, but also India, Russia, North Korea and Pakistan.

“The interactions of this reconnaissance-nuclear system are tightening. That these couplings are overlooked doesn’t make them unimportant. It only means that technology — once again — is racing ahead of strategy.”

How then can the United States shape a primarily conventional force driven strategy for high end conflict in the Pacific?

And how can it be shaped without a very clear working through with allies how to manage crises in ways that escalation can be handled effectively without going to the highest end of nuclear conflict?

What clearly needs to happen is a thoughtful working through of how U.S .force transformation is embedded in a broader Pacific strategy, rather than one off modernization efforts, like the US Army’s 1,000 mile gun as pop up option.

As Lt. General (Retired) Deptula put it:  Clearly, we need to implement the new nuclear strategy, and notably insure that the standoff weapons piece in the modernization program is fully funded, both for today’s bomber force and for the B-21.

“And, for me, shaping the comprehensive C2/ISR integratability piece is crucial, which I refer to as the combat cloud.

“If we can get to that kind of a vision for joint force operations then no service like the Army or the Marine Corps needs to feel that they have to justify their relevancy, but they’re part and parcel of an entire panoply of capabilities that’s formed by this intelligence surveillance, reconnaissance, strike, maneuver sustainment complex that’s extraordinarily difficult for any adversary to derail.

“Even if an adversary is able to take out a couple of elements of the combat cloud, the rest of the elements re-form and re-heal and continue to operate.

“It’s the diversity of domains and particular threats coming from each of those domains, air, sea, land, space, subsea, that will complicate an adversary’s calculus, which is crucial to achieve deterrence.

“The problem of achieving deterrence is that it is an intangible.

“And so people have a difficulty putting their hands on it, when in fact it’s the most cost-effective means to avoiding conflict and win it, because you’re winning without having to fight.

“And this requires for us to have an ability to integrate nuclear weapons into this strategic calculus.”

Note: Recently, in Global Times, a PRC newspaper, the editor called for China to increase its number of nuclear warheads”

“We don’t have much time debating the need for increased nuclear warheads, we just need to accelerate the steps that make it happen.” 

The featured Photo: A formation of Dongfeng-41 intercontinental strategic nuclear missiles takes part in a military parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing, capital of China, Oct. 1, 2019. (Xinhua/Tao Liang)